Turn Down the Volume


Working in a call center, call volume is the be-all and end-all, despite the nods higher-ups make to quality and customer satisfaction. What matters most is how many calls I answer during the hours I spend at work, not how many people I assist or educate or, God forbid, improve the days of during those calls.

The target average call volume for representatives here is 65 calls a day. In the daily e-mails regarding call stats I’ve seen scores in the hundreds on a regular basis. I find myself struggling to take 75. This past week I’ve consistently taken 55+ calls daily. That would have been high at my last call center job, where calls were often intensive and lasted longer. The majority of the calls I take now are straightforward, with callers verifying information they could view online. Which isn’t to say I am never faced with complex situations. It’s just a bit rarer.

That said, it’s surprising what a difference a few calls can make. On a day where I take 55 calls, it is probably a bit slow, with five-minute breaks between calls sometimes. But on a day when I take 75 calls, they are most likely coming in back to back to back. The software the call center uses causes a new browser window to open when a call comes in. Often on busy days a new call will be populating on the screen before I’ve had a chance to complete the notes for the last.

The incessant beeping in my ear on high-volume days reminds me of those bells they used to put on hotel desks. The ones impatient rich people pound in movies or on TV. I am sure the high-pitched noise is meant to jog my attention, but there must be a better way. I can multi-task well, but the beep derails my train of thought, compounding the time it will take me to finish the last call while I attempt to focus on the next. Plus, having multiple calls open on the system increases the margin for error, as I struggle to determine which call is which on my taskbar.

The time I am sitting at my desk ready to take calls is called “available.” The next person who calls into the call center gets routed to an available representative skilled to answer calls for that particular line. While in training, when a call came in we were allowed to put ourselves in “AUX” - the non-available option used for breaks/lunch and meetings or system issues. This meant that after the caller disconnected I wouldn’t automatically receive another call. I would have to put myself back into “available” to return to the queue of representatives at the ready to assist the next caller.

Now that we’re out of training, I can’t use AUX for that reason. In high-volume times, those precious few seconds to finish notes, save, and take a deep breath before returning to “available” were invaluable. Otherwise, I find myself dreading the current caller hanging up because I might have to speak with someone else instantaneously. Imagine any other job where literally in the next second after speaking with one person I am forced to assist the next. And the next and the next and the next. Even bank tellers get the time it takes the customer to walk to the counter from where the velvet ropes end.

A friend mentions that he knows of call centers where representatives are expected to do virtual chats with multiple customers at one time. At least they haven’t figured out how I can handle multiple telephone calls all at once. I know the higher-ups are concerned with meeting customer need. They don’t want callers waiting on hold 10 minutes before they can reach a representative.

But I keep thinking the insistence on call volume and efficiency is at least partially due to the technology I am using. To return to the bank teller example: standing in the lobby, or even pulling up to the drive-through, it is possible to see just HOW MANY people are in line and manage your time and expectations accordingly. But in a call center environment, there isn’t any way for the customer to know how many people were ahead of them in the queue. Even the hold recording probably only tells them an estimated wait time – not the number of calls waiting to be answered before theirs.

It’s like the friend who thinks you’re having a fight if you haven’t responded to their text in five minutes. Maybe you were at the movies or your battery died. The same technological advances which have allowed us to have better access to communication have also altered our expectations about communication. Not always for the better, either.

Many call centers are open 24 hours a day. At least the one where I work is only open for 12. We have allowed callers to have inflated expectations regarding customer service, especially regarding the speed at which someone will be available to meet their needs. It would be great if everyone could have their problems addressed or their questions answered instantaneously, but the current system clearly doesn’t have the resources to accommodate that.

Yet, instead of adjusting the customer’s expectations, we make increasingly difficult demands on employees instead. Increasing the focus on education instead of efficiency would itself bring down the call volume. In the meantime, we could be honest about the demands on the time and resources of call center employees and ask for the patience of callers in a real way – not with the tonal platitudes of the automated system that has them on hold.

We can’t see each other or touch each other through telephone wires, and that is damaging to the way we learn to communicate via technology. It is stressful and exhausting to help 75 people in a day, no matter how pure my intentions are. And to expect me to do that at MINIMUM five days a week indefinitely is not sustainable. Instead of stretching our resources thinner and thinner to cover more ground, we need to take a step back and evaluate what customer service actually means. Even if that requires turning the volume DOWN.

Image credit: Robert S. Donovan

About Nicole Nagy

Nicole Nagy is an independent scholar and writer who is currently working a day job as a customer service representative in the public sector. She is passionate about bringing communication and connection back to the forefront of the customer service industry, and about finding connections between the Humanities and business. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, gardening, artistic pursuits, and cuddling her kitten.

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